Monday, April 16, 2007

book review: the public assault on america's children

Polakow, Valerie (Ed.). (2000). The Public Assault on America’s Children: Poverty, Violence and Juvenile Injustice. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

228 Pp.
$ 54.00 (hardcover)
ISBN 0-8077-2984-7
$ 23.95 (paperback)
ISBN 0-8077-3983-9

In The Public Assault on America’s Children: Poverty, Violence and Juvenile Injustice, the editor and contributors discuss what a violent society against children has been gradually formed through the social policies and political discourses during the 1990s and what this means for children who grows up in such society. Several forms of violence against children– the violence of poverty and homelessness, the violence of environmentally induced childhood diseases, the news media and legislative criminalization of children, and the more and more incarceration of youth offenders or trouble makers – are marked in the book. By examining these violent factors and their implications, the book successfully delineates how the way a society treats people and its consequences could make a vicious circle, and what might be the key to stop it.

The book begins with the editor, Valerie Polakow’s introduction, “Savage Policies: Systemic Violence and the Lives of Children,” which points out how the “welfare reform” starting since 1996 has been deteriorating the lives of poor children. Polakow shows the dilemma a poor parent has after the reform that s/eh has to choose either a job with an incredible low wage below the poverty line (which cannot afford the basic living including the fair quality for child care) or the destiny of being kicked out from the list of welfare subsidy. Such poverty situation makes lots of children – most of them are minorities – marginalized by the whole society due to their deficient developmental environment, and finally, criminalized by the strict attitudes and treatments due to the policy such as Zero-Tolerance after their entering schools. These discussions give readers a simple but clear background for the issues in the following chapters. Polakow then ends the instruction with a description of organization of this book.

The main body of this book includes three parts. Part I, “Poverty, Violence, and the Lived Realities of Children” has four chapters. The contributors here give discussions of what ideologies and philosophies historically inherent in American society and underlying contemporary social policies and discourses regarding poverty, single mother and children make the United States a nation, in which the citizens choose to turn away from “other people’s children.”

In chapter one, “A Crucible of Contradictions: Historical Roots of Violence Against Children in the United States,” the author Barbara Finkelstein discuss those “honored” religious, political, and socioeconomic traditions in the American society regarding the justice of individuals right and the role of a responsible mother have turned to the selfish beliefs of privatization and no necessity to give mothers with difficulties any help. Chapter two, “Poverty and Environmentally Induced Damage to Children,” continues to discuss the relation between poverty and environmentally induced damages which torture poor children’s lives. The author Sue Books points out that the public tends to attribute these children’s miserable destinies to their despicable poor parents who lack morality and are unwilling to take responsibility for the children. However, she argues that making these children to be exposed to those dangerous factors cannot be merely seen as an unfortunate and blamable “fact.” It is the inevitable consequence of the systemic violence within the society, and the unjust social policy of the welfare reform has been deteriorating such situation. In Chapter three,” Poverty and Youth Violence,” Vorrasi and Garbarino further uses the term “social toxin” to describe risk factors existing in the society which would impede children’s development. These factors include perceived economic inequality, exposure to family violence, participation in the illicit economy, and poverty, which the authors regard as the factor “reigns superior to most other individual risk factors with respect to having the ability to catalyze dysfunction.”

After discussing the damages due to physically environment, Chapter four, “Framing Children in the News: The Face and Color of Youth Crime in America” focuses on the violence of news media. The author LynNell Hancock uses a murder case to examine the news media’s role in shaping the public’s fear of children, especially for the minority, black or Latin boys. In July 1998, an 11-year-old girl’s body was found in one of Chicago’s most crime-addled neighborhoods. Two black boys, ages 7 and 8, are accused to murder this girl for her bike. In the beginning, the public was surprised at that the suspects were such two little boys, but then they turned to believe the possibilities. The tone of “anything possible” was filled the air. The Los Angeles Times used “the end of innocence” in the headline of its first-day editorial; the Chicago Sun-Times said that “more and more we are seeing child play replaced with predatory behavior.” The two little suspects are brought to the court, treated as adult criminals. Yet, finally, the truth turned out that it’s NOT these two black little young man killed Ryan. Hancock gives his observations and discussions of how the news Media had been working on “prepare” the whole society to believe such unexpectedly brutal crimes were committed by no longer innocent children or the so-called new breed “superpredator” – especially by black boys coming from a poverty area. Finally, he proposes suggestions of possible changes for the media environment to turn the tide.

Part II, “Schools, Violence, and Zero-Tolerance Policies,” focuses on how the previous discussed social environment and attitudes toward children influence the way schools treat students and its consequences. In chapter five, “America’s Least Wanted: Zero-Tolerance Policies and the Fate of Expelled Students,” Sasha Polakow-Suransky reveals the contradictory value between the old common-law doctrine of parens patriae (which provides the legal foundation for America’s public education system to all children) and the Zoro-Tolerance Policies (which punishes and expels students who bring anything “deemed” dangerous stuff to schools, without any alternative education). The author use statistics and a case study to reveal the difficult position students have after leaving schools. The data also shows that the expulsions of the minority students are disproportionate – the average American population was 39.8%, yet African American students accounted for 64% of the total expulsions. Treated like this, these minorities kids are not only exclude by the schools but by the whole society because it can’t be argued that education is the only way these children can reverse their inferior position in the social structure.

Another chapter in Part II, “Listen First: How student Perspectives on Violence Can Be Used to Create Safer Schools,” Pedro A. Noguera argues that increasing the security guards under the Zero-Tolerance policy which aims to expel violent or “potentially violent” students from schools won’t decrease the fear of other students, parents, and teachers. Because the feeling of safety within the schools or around the community people live needs to be built on human relationships regarding understanding, care and respect. Noguera’s research results suggest that schools appear less feelings of fear when children trusts adults who have the ability to solve problems and protect them actively rather than just move the trouble from schools passively and usually neglect some existing trouble that the children have to resolve for themselves.

The final Part III, “Juvenile Injustice” concludes this book by the discussions of the phenomenon that “more significantly, beneath the rarely occurring but dominant focus on youth homicides, normal youth behavior and misbehavior became further criminalized, all in the name of safety” in chapter seven, “Look out, Kid, It’s Something You Did: The Criminalization of Children” by Bernadine Dohrn. And, in chapter eight, “Throwaway Children: conditions of Confinement and Incarceration,” James Bell points out the confinement and incarceration inflicted on the students who are “demonized” in the United States violates the international convention regarding children’s rights. Moreover, it’s unacceptable that juvenile facilities don’t provide any adequate “individualized and comprehensive interventions that hold young people accountable and help give them the necessary personal, educational, and technical skills designed to help them make the transition to becoming responsible adults.” All we can see is only segregation with punitive, retributive, and distrust attitudes. Bell calls for the changes of the treatment in the juvenile institutions.

If you have seen the documentary “Bowling for Columbine” directed by Michael Moore (2002), the issues discussed in this book wouldn’t be unfamiliar to you because the aspects they reach and the main concern are very similar. However, I think the following two features make this book unique. First, the discussions in all chapters successfully keep children in readers’ mind – how they might suffer and what alternative treatments the society could give them. The depiction of poor families and children’s real lives at home, in schools, and institutions force the readers to see and think beyond the facts. Second, there was some valuable research and case studies done. The study of students’ perspectives on Violence in Chapter six is one good example. Such inquiry not only uncovers children’s view, which was seldom seriously valued and seen, but also provides evidence that the related policies need to be changed.

Who should read the book? If you are a teacher or at a position working with children in the United States, reading this book would help you have an insight into the violent world your students face everyday. Knowing better about how the current policies decelerate a “potentially violent” student’s situation could help you have more thoughts of what situations you have to deal with and what alternative actions you might take. For parents, this book could give you a picture what your children might face in schools and the ability to judge whether teachers and schools are doing the right thing to your children. As for those who have few experiences to get along with children or have the feeling of fear toward children born in our era, this book could help you inspect where the fear from and to gain some ability to examine the structural problems existing in the society. Finally, for all policy makers and politicians, this book gives a clear warning that how the American society are sacrificing its future – the child – due to the decisions made and are going to be made.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Review: Thinking Points

Lakoff, George. (2006) Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

176 pp.
$10 (paperback) ISBN 0-3745-3090-4

In Thinking Points: communicating our American Values and Vision, the author George Lakoff opens with an explicit expression of intention for this book– the book is to call on grassroots Americans to act for re-leading the United States to the way based on its inherently “progressive” values such as common wealth for common good, diversity, and tolerance. In the introduction “why we write,” Lakoff points out that the radial, authoritarian right wing that refers to itself as “conservative” has been dominated the United States for decades. Conservatives act as if they are the ones who are devoted to preserving and promoting American values. However, their values are contradictory to the “traditional” American values which made the United States a respectful and just nation. In this book, Lakoff attributes conservatives’ success of leading the United States to their being good at communicating with the public. By illustrating how language and moral framing can be effectively used to communicate with the public, Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute call upon grassroots progressives to trumpet their values by using good strategies so that they can give progressive politician strong backings to reverse the trend led by conservatives.

As a book aiming to speak to the public, Thinking Points is an easily read handbook. Lakoff uses concrete examples to illustrate his points, and he provides “frames” for readers to have an insight into what progressive and conservative worldviews are. Lakoff also provides “frames” for reformers, strategists and advocators to learn how to frame their issues and use strategies to initiate progressive changes. The contents in this book are well-organized into eight chapters. The author doesn’t group those chapters into different sections. Yet according to its content and structure, it can be viewed as having three main parts.

In the first part – from chapter one to chapter three – Lakoff provides a discussion for the phenomenon of why conservatives keep winning and why progressives keep losing campaigns and failing in leading political discourses. Chapter one, “Winning and Losing,” compares and contrasts the different ways progressives and conservatives communicate to people. Borrowing Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for former president Ronald Reagan’s discovery, Lakoff concludes that people will vote for the person who tries to communicate them with value (as conservative Reagan did) rather than issues or a laundry of programs and policies (as most progressives do). Lakoff further proposes twelve traps progressives hole which make them lose votes.

In chapter two, “Biconceptualism,” Lakoff argues there is no so-called “center.” By “no center,” Lakoff means that there is no absolutely conservative or progressive voter. Everyone having conservative beliefs in some aspects would hold progressive values in other aspects. The common strategy progressives use to attract voters is shifting from left to a little bit right, or being moderates. By doing so, unfortunately, progressives lose their votes from the left due to lack of authenticity and they won’t get extra votes they expect from the imaginary “center” eventually. Conservatives never shift their positions – they stick to their values so voters can identify them and feel they are trustworthy. Lakoff argues that the only way to win more votes for progressives is to activate those common progressive values hold by both of progressives and conservatives without the sacrifice of moral authenticity.

After emphasizing the necessity of communicating values authentically to the public, in chapter three, “Frames and Brains,” Lafoff further draws on research discoveries regarding how the brain operates to explain how important the use of frames is. He suggests that human beings use frames to facilitate our understanding of this world. Such use of frames is usually implicit so we are not even aware of this. However, the activation of some specific frames rather than others would dominate our understanding and thinking toward one thing. Lakoff points out that “over the past thirty-five years, conservatives have spent more than $4 billion constructing a system of dozens of think thanks and training institutes, staffed by right-wing intellectuals. They have managed to dominate the framing of issues and have profoundly changed American politics in the process.” For example, using “the war on terror,” conservatives successively invoke people’s implicit frame regarding war. Such an implicit activated frame makes people naturally rationalize what happens and serve politicians as a foundation to justify their actions no matter whether it’s adequate to declare war to the terrorists and whether the war can lead to satisfying solutions for protecting the United States.

However, most progressives don’t know the necessity and power of using frames and have no sense of conservatives’ use of frames. Progressives are usually rationalists who believe human beings always be able to judge things by logical reasoning. As a result, Progressives seldom consider framing when communicating their arguments with people, and they don’t know how to re-frame what conservatives articulate. In chapter four, Lakoff explicitly discusses several kinds of frames and gives examples to illustrate how progressives can break conservatives’ frames by replacing the frame embodying progressive values.

In the second part, Lakoff starts to focus on addressing the different moral and political philosophies hold by progressives and conservatives. Chapter four, “the Nation as Family,” presents how Americans’ political beliefs are structured by their idealizations of the family. Conservative morality, like the strict father model, centers on authority and control; progressive morality, like the nurturant model, emphasizes empathy and responsibility. Such differences lead progressives and conservatives to different principles and arguments for all kinds of political issues such as poverty, terrorism, and also the market, which is especially discussed in chapter five, “Morality and the Market.” It’s impressive to see how relevant the personal idealized family model and moral and political philosophies would be. And the amazing thing is that holding so different moral systems, conservatives and progressives would have totally different definitions for the very common terms we use today which might be view as “universal values” – freedom, equality, responsibility, integrity and security. Lakoff calls those concepts above “contested concepts” in the chapter six, “fundamental values.” He gives a discussion of why people can mean different things when they use the same words. Finally, in the last part, Lakoff gives examples of how progressives should use strategic initiatives to lead long-term changes in chapter seven, “Strategic Initiatives” and make their arguments in chapter eight, “the Art of Arguments.”

Although this book is written to speak to Americans, it’s worth reading for anyone who is interested in learning how to act for your faiths and values because Lakoff gives not only the contextual examples regarding American political environment but also the general principles of making good arguments and use of strategies. Besides, the progressive Americans values Layoff discusses are not particularly belonged to the United States. Anyone who has such progressive values can use Thinking Points as a reference to examine her/his underlying value systems and to examine whether her/his actions are consistent with beliefs and intentional goals. Finally, the United States now is an aggressive nation in the world which has power to intervene in international affairs and even enact and call on a war. By reading such a book, “foreigners” who would like to cooperate or negotiate with the conservative-dominant American government would have a better understanding of how those politicians believe and think. Also, as the American “dominant culture” has been constructed in other nations intentionally by the United States or spread more naturally to different places all over the world, Think Points provides people outside the United States who want to “learn” from American a chance to examine what implicit values underlying concepts and policies they would bring into their society, and what consequences their actions might have.